Tessa Thompson is having a momentous 2018. She began the year with a challenging dramatic role in the under appreciated sci-fi thriller, “Annihilation.” Then, she made several appearances in a number of eye-popping music videos for Janelle Monáe’s latest album, “Dirty Computer.” Now, Thompson stars opposite Lakeith Stanfield in writer and director Boots Riley’s lurid satire, “Sorry to Bother You.”
In the film, Thompson plays Detroit, a performance artist with a strong feminist outlook and an anti-establishment attitude. Stanfield portrays Detroit’s boyfriend, Cassius “Cash” Green, a dissatisfied telemarketer who begins to code switch (i.e. using a “white voice” to fool clients into thinking he isn’t black) to move up in the company.
While Stanfield looks befuddled at the absurd world around him, Thompson plays a cool, confident character – the type of person who’s upfront about her beliefs at all times. As Green, Stanfield exudes an anxious, insecure energy. Thompson’s presence as Detroit has a calming effect: You know where she stands on issues, like if it’s okay to sell out or pretend to pass as white. (Detroit isn’t okay with either.) It’s a case of opposites attract, but when Green becomes obsessed with a promotion instead of going on strike with his friends, he also lets down Detroit.
In an interview with Newsweek, Thompson said she was drawn to Detroit’s charismatic persona. “She is just trying to figure out the intersection of the art that she makes and activism and that’s something that really resonates with me,” she said. “And because she is this really fly performance artist, visual artist, Boots really just wanted to push the parameters of what you’ve seen on film in terms of the look and the aesthetic.”
Thompson’s scene-stealing performance would not be complete without a radical wardrobe to match. Costume designer Deirdra Govan told Nylon what she envisioned for Thompson’s character.
“The base of Detroit was that she was a self-assured woman, she was a very tuned-in artist, she was all about her work because she was not a sell-out,” Govan said in the interview. “She achieved success on her own terms.”
Detroit is a colorful presence in almost every scene she’s in. Typically, she wears her bleached hair, complete with an orange ombre, down. In one scene, she rocks a T-shirt that reads, “The Future is Female Ejaculation.” And of course, there’s a scene of her anti-colonist performance art in a gallery, where she invites the audience to throw things at her while she’s wearing only a bodysuit and inflated gloves.
But Detroit’s true statement pieces are playfully large earrings with messages like, “Tell Homeland Security/We are the Bomb” and “Murder Murder Murder/Kill Kill Kill.” Designed in a ’70s style font in bright neon colors, the earrings are hard to miss. They were custom made for the movie, and if you’re a fan, you can already buy a set in the film’s online store.
Thompson has played a more serious version of the artist with an activist agenda. In “Dear White People,” one of her first big film roles, Thompson played a student filmmaker documenting her campus’ internal struggle with race. Since then, she’s forged an impressive body of work. She portrayed Valkyrie in “Thor: Ragnarok” and updated the role of the title boxer’s girlfriend in the “Rocky” follow-up, “Creed.” Detroit may be one of her most eye-catching performances yet, but it makes me quite excited to see what projects she’ll take on next.